Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rockabilly meets angelic host

2  out of 5 stars

A cute, mostly forgettable PNR. While the story at the book's heart, the one actually driving the plot, is as dark and twisted as they come, the rest of the book is fairly prosaic. There's the spunky heroine, Katherine "Kit" Craig, this time dressed up as an "I defy you to pigeonhole me" rockabilly Lois Lane, which, I'll grant you, is an interesting twist--I haven't seen too many rockabilly dolls in modern fiction. Then there's the deep and brooding hero, Griffin Shaw, with the requisite dark past, only this particular incarnation of the trope is a not-quite-fallen, more-like-demoted angel, who died in 1960 and has enough baggage to fill one of those brass hotel trolleys. Also shuffling in and out of the story are the other contract players whom we never quite learn much about, but are necessary to fill out the plot: the schmuck of an ex-husband (who is appropriately schmuck-like and, naturally, completely different to Kit's lifestyle, so much so it makes one wonder why the author had Kit married to him in the first place, other than to lay the groundwork for a future dramatic scene); the protective girlfriend (who can also create Kit's killer Bettie Page 'do); and the supportive cop friend (who we have to take on faith as being trustworthy as we're never really introduced to him beyond a superficial intro). Basically, nothing really original, except maybe for the Vegas location and the kitschy retro backdrops.

While I must say I didn't find Kit quite as annoying as many other PNR heroines, I don't feel as though I came away from the novel knowing who she is, what drives her, what's really underneath that rockabilly exterior. (In fact, the most annoying thing I ran into was everyone else's insistence on calling her 'Kitten' or 'Kitty-Cat'. How cute. And how so completely unoriginal.) Griffin Shaw, the angel/P.I., complains constantly about Kit's incessant talking, the fact that she's too cheerful, too stubborn, flighty, contradictory, cavalier, yadda yadda yadda, but we never learn why she's any of those things, most especially when it comes to her indefatigably upbeat nature, or if those mannerisms are merely a cover for deeper issues. (We kind of get a hint that it's the latter, but that hint is never fully explored. Perhaps Pettersson is leaving that for later books.) When it came to the rockabilly part, you can tell Pettersson is fascinated by the phenomenon and respects those who belong to that particular subculture, but it never felt fully integrated into Kit's character. At times, it felt as though she was almost too "kooky" or, as one character called her, "weird," as though she was trying to hard to be insouciant and one-of-a-kind. She wore the clothes, she talked the talk and walked the walk, but it still felt a bit like a little girl playing dress-up. Basically, she seemed...unfinished.

Griffin Shaw is little better, as his main motivation is vengeance. His wife, Evie, was murdered in front of him, just before his own life was taken, and he was set up as the fall guy by whomever committed the murder. Once he returned as a Guardian (an angel responsible for ushering newly departed souls to the Everlast--which is just about the worst name for an afterlife, though highly appropriate for the book's Vegas setting, as every time I saw it mentioned, I thought of boxing equipment), he made it his mission to somehow find out who killed his beloved Evie. Or at least never stop thinking about her and her death. And believe me, for most of the first part of the book, he never does. Evie this and Evie that. It gets a bit tiresome after a while because you began to believe his memories of perfect Evie and their perfect, wedded bliss have become enhanced by the rose-tinted glasses of memory and Griffin's driving need for closure. However, it does make his gradual realization of his feelings for Kit feel a bit more realistic, even if I did want to hit Griffin over the noggin to speed up the process. For all the drama/trauma driving him, there's little more to Griffin's personality. He always acted the complete gentleman and from his actions it was obvious he had a strong moral center, but, like Kit, you never really knew what, if anything, was going on underneath that polite exterior. Once again, the word 'unfinished' comes to mind.

I think the most disappointing feature of the novel is the lack of spark. I'm not talking about romantic chemistry, which you can see between Griffin and Kit. No, I'm talking about a different kind of spark. After all, I figured with a rockabilly heroine and an authentically cool cat angel/P.I. there'd be some snappy dialogue, along the lines of the Howard Hawks/Rosalind Russell/Cary Grant type you see in His Girl Friday (the best movie of all time for that kind of one-liner repartee). Instead, the dialogue was pretty flat and occasionally awkward or forced. The book tries to strike a balance between funny and dramatic, yet usually only achieves jarring results when a scene can't decide which way it wants to lean. It wants to be noir, but can't achieve the necessary hard-boiled snappiness required to be good noir; it wants to be a romantic comedy, but can't achieve the light-hearted snappiness required to be a good romantic comedy. So it ends up being a slightly confused mishmash of all of the above.

About the only thing that makes this novel stand out is the plot line, which is dark, diabolical, and completely reprehensible. It makes you wonder if Pettersson has some issues with men or perhaps just Mormons and this is how she's working them out. While it may not be utterly believable, the plot did make me want to keep reading, just to see the villain get his well-deserved and inevitable comeuppance. However, a dark and disturbing story line does not a good PNR/urban fantasy make; it needs all the other parts to make it whole, which once again brings me to that word 'unfinished'. The book felt as though it was missing that one key ingredient which would've brought the whole mess together and made it into something spectacular.

I'm not sure I'm invested enough in either the premise or the characters to continue reading the series, mainly due to the disappointing execution of the tale. There are other authors out there who can do twisted suspense stories even better and without all the angel falderal (which is the aspect of the novel which really got on my nerves. Yes, yes, before ya'll start foaming at the mouth, I knew the book involved angels and I knew there would be some God talk, but it still seemed a bit heavy-handed at times). I don't know why angels are the new big thing lately in the PNR genre, but I think I'll stay away. They're really not my cup o' tea. And as far as Vicki Pettersson, I have the first novel of her Zodiac series sitting in one my bookshelves; I'm still interested in reading it, but I think I'll go into it a bit more reservedly than I would've before reading The Taken.

Read April 1-5, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program April 8, 2012

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